SANTA CRUZ — The frontline response to emergency calls involving people in mental health crisis has been the subject of much debate locally and nationally in recent years.
But for the first time in Santa Cruz County, officials say they have a cross-jurisdictional investigation that can serve as a “baseline of understanding” for ongoing discussions about how the response effort can be refined and improved.
This week, the County Criminal Justice Board released its 2022 annual report which focused on the policies, training and procedures adopted by local law enforcement and mental health liaison officers in response to calls from service resulting from behavioral health issues.
According to survey results, 577 911 emergency calls in the county were tagged with mental health codes by dispatchers and police from June 1 through August 15 alone.
Zach Friend, the Santa Cruz County supervisor representing the 2nd District and also chairman of the Criminal Justice Council, said that figure was likely a significant undercount. He said the report gave “a better sense of the scale of the problem within our community and the gaps – both upstream or at the bedside and upstream or on the prevention and treatment side. intervention”.
It was the “back end” snapshot that revealed glaring concerns for Friend.
According to the report, of the 577 calls with mental health codes, 100 resulted in people being transported to local facilities. About 83 of those people were taken to a behavioral health unit or psychiatric health facility for treatment.
“What was concerning was that there were times when Telecare was full and someone who needed acute help was instead transported to the Dominican Republic,” Friend said, adding that this transfer to hospital is not a lasting solution.
Corinne Hyland, spokeswoman for the county’s Social Services Agency, said the county has a total of 16 inpatient psychiatric beds, all of which are located at a facility in Soquel operated by Telecare.
About 16 of the 100 “transports” went to the Dominican hospital and four of those people went to an “overflow” unit because the hospital space was also running out of space.
“We don’t have enough beds to meet this growing need,” Friend said.
The response side
Conversely, Friend said there was some clarifying data and silver linings when it came to the response side of things.
Three of the five law enforcement agencies included in the survey — the sheriff’s office as well as the Watsonville and Santa Cruz police departments — work with local mental health liaisons who bring behavioral health expertise. to service calls. According to the report, local organizations such as Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health, Encompass Community Services, the Homeless Resource Project, and many others have partnered with law enforcement for health services. connection.
The Scotts Valley and Capitola Police Departments responded saying they are not currently working with those liaisons due to budget restrictions and minimal calls for service, but both have indicated an interest in sharing a liaison with a other jurisdiction.
This willingness to participate in the liaison program is important as the number of calls for mental health-related services increases and the county is not without incidents in this area that have resulted in tragedies.
In 2016, 32-year-old Sean Arlt was shot and killed by police outside his Westside residence after brandishing a metal bow rake during a confrontation. According to Sentinel reports, police had managed to subdue Arlt a week earlier during an episode of mental illness at the same location.
What awaits us
Friend said the report was intentionally non-prescriptive, but drew lines between reports from previous years and recent policy outcomes.
The council’s 2021 report highlighted use-of-force policies in local law enforcement as a national conversation on the topic continued. Friend said the report played a significant role in the county council’s decision to create the Office of Inspector General in December, which will provide independent oversight and review of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
He also acknowledged that the Santa Cruz community has a wide range of views on what role law enforcement should play in mental health incidents — if any.
However, he pointed out that law enforcement and the mental health liaisons in the investigation agreed that the liaisons should be present on a behavioral health call and the five responders on the liaison in mental health said they preferred to answer calls from behavioral health services with an officer.
The data “is pretty clear,” he said, and law enforcement will need to play an “important role” in calls for mental and behavioral health services in the future, but there is still work to be done. To do.
“There’s no typical call,” Friend said. “The system needs to be coordinated and intertwined in a way that I think it has the basics right now, but it could be expanded to be better.”
Friend said the council will likely turn its attention to the courts and the prison system for its 2023 report. For more information on the council, visit santacruzcjc.org.